Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Men on Cyprus remark about the Turkish fleet beset by violently stormy weather. Awaiting for news concerning the naval battle between Othello and the Turks, a “3rd Gentleman” reports: “The ship is here put in; / A Veronesa, Michael Cassio, / Lieutenant to the warlike Moor Othello, / Is come on shore” (II.i.26). The term “Veronesa” has caused some consternation among scholars, since we were told that Cassio is Florentine (I.i.20), not from Verona. If the ambiguous punctuation were altered so that the term would refer to the ship, then doesn’t that clash with the assertion a moment ago that “The ship is of Venice” (II.i.22)? Most footnoting editors decide the ship was furnished by Verona for Venetian service. But the true solution is to realize that “Veronesa” is an Italian word for a particular type of ship (Kermode 1259), again denoting specialized knowledge on the part of the playwright of Italian terms — military, naval, civic, and more.
Soon Cassio is ashore and worried for Othello, who receives unadulterated praise. Iago arrives with the women and Roderigo, and while they await Othello, Iago plays the witty, henpecked, love-cynic in front of his wife Emilia for the benefit of Desdemona and Cassio, as if his bitterness is merely a gruff impertinent exterior: e.g., “She never yet was foolish that was fair, / For even her folly help’d her to an heir” (II.i.136-137). The misogyny sounds real enough though: women generally “suckle fools and chronicle small beer” (II.i.160). Aside, Iago makes note of slight signs of innocent affection between Desdemona and Cassio: “Yet again, your fingers to your lips? Would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!” (II.i.176-177).
Othello triumphantly enters, having repelled the Turks. He greets Desdemona: “O my fair warrior!” (II.i.182). Celebration is in the air, but Iago privately strikes a note of disharmony: “O, you are well tun’d now! / But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music” (II.i.199-200). With everyone else gone, Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona is attracted to Cassio and will soon tire of her fling with Othello: “her delicate tenderness will find itself abus’d, begin to heave the gorge, disrelish and abhor the Moor; very nature will instruct her in it and compel her to some second choice” (II.i.232-235). Roderigo says the friendliness between Cassio and Desdemona “was but courtesy” (II.i.256), but Iago says, “Lechery … an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts” (II.i.257-258). Iago insists that Roderigo must find some way to enrage Cassio — they can use his provocation to some advantage.
Iago ruminates further on his hatred for Othello, insisting again on the cuckolding. This time, Iago also accuses Cassio of having an affair with his wife — “For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too” (II.i.307) — so he does sound insane, unless this is further artificial self-motivation.
Othello’s herald announces the celebratory festivities beginning now at 5:00 and lasting to 11:00 in honor of “the isle of Cyprus and our noble general Othello” (II.ii.11-12).
Evening festivities are underway and Othello tells Desdemona, “Come, my dear love, / The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you” (II.ii.8-10), suggesting perhaps that their marriage has not been consummated.
Iago verges on leering insinuations about Desdemona to Cassio, but Cassio’s responses are all above-board, more a matter of praising her virtue. Iago persuades the self-confessed lightweight Cassio to drink. The soldiers are all drinking and Iago sings some rousing songs, one of which he learned “in England, where indeed they are most potent in potting; your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander — Drink ho! — are nothing to your English” (II.iii.76-79). Cassio starts denying the effects of the liquor upon him, and Iago spreads a rumor that Cassio is a chronic alcoholic.
‘Tis evermore the prologue to his sleep.
He’ll watch the horologe a double set
If drink rock not his cradle.
In other words, without alcohol, Cassio has lengthy insomnia. The reference is natural for a “high-strung poet like Oxford” (Ogburn and Ogburn 509). Noise erupts and Roderigo has successfully provoked Cassio into a fight. Intending to calm things, Montano mentions drunkenness and Cassio attacks and wounds him. Othello is alerted and, considering this violent brawling “monstrous” (II.iii.217), questions the men: “How comes it, Michael, you are thus forgot?” (II.iii.188). Cassio can’t speak, and Montano is too wounded, so Iago, with feigned reluctance, gives the basics. Othello thinks Iago is watering down the account (II.iii.246f) and is moved to dismiss Cassio. Thus Othello ironically condemns lack of control over unruly passions.
When all others have left, Cassio laments to Iago, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!” (II.iii.262-265). Iago insists reputation is an abstraction: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving” (II.iii.268-270). Cassio bemoans the powers of alcohol: “O, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! that we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!” (II.iii.289-293). Iago says, “Come, come; good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well us’d; exclaim no more against it” (II.iii.309-310), and he tells Cassio that he can get back in the good graces of Othello by appealling through Desdemona: “Our general’s wife is now the general” (II.iii.314-315) — a comment resembling all those remarks out of the bitchy right-wing blue about Hillary Clinton.
Iago has another soliloquy about his own evil, a sort of pointless exercise in rationalizing. He wants Desdemona to plead for Othello to forgive Cassio so that he, Iago, can “pour this pestilence into his ear — / That she repeals him for her body’s lust” (II.iii.356-357). The more she tries to do good, the worse she’ll look: “So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (II.iii.360-362).
Roderigo returns. He has grown impatient and is ready to give up: his money is almost gone and he’s been beaten up tonight too, all for what? He is ready to return to Venice, but Iago convinces him to hang in there now that Cassio’s “cashier’d” (II.iii.375).